People asked to see some of my Ebels, so here's one to start what will be a series of posts over the next few weeks.
But first, a little history. Many know this story, but perhaps many more do not. Ebel is one of those strangely obscure brands; they are loved by many watch enthusiasts, but dismissed by others as being a fashion brand. I suspect the reasons behind the dismissal are two-fold: They are owned by the Movado Group, and they seem to have specialized in ladies watches, most of which have...quartz...movements.
Let me say this about that. Yes, they sell quartz watches, and yes, they have during various periods (including now, unfortunately) specialized in ladies watches. But their ladies watches are really just plain spectacular. One reason I get away with having 1.) nice watches, and 2.) a happy marriage is that my wife's watch collection is easily as valuable as mine. But sparkly things float her boat, rather than the mechanical beating heart that floats mine. Her Ebel Brasilia is a largish tank-style watch with diamonds running up and down the tank treads. The diamonds are all graded, and are either IF or VVS, and colorless (E or better). Put these rocks on a ring, and bring your checkbook! But as a watch, it was a steal. So what if in addition to all those diamonds it also has a quartz crystal lurking down in there somewhere? Ebel's standards for case finishing and jewelry quality are the best in the business, until you are spending well into the five figures, and even then they hold their own. In particular, they make the most comfortable bracelets of anyone--but that's for a later thread.
And on the Movado thing: Movado, being American, lacks patience. So, when they don't instantly sell a bazillion examples of a new model, they dump it at Movado Company Stores of which there are a couple dozen in the U.S. That means that if one is just a bit lucky, and a bit patient, one can get an Ebel for about 25 or 30 cents on the dollar. And that's with all the AD benefits including full U.S. warranty.
So, back to the history, because Ebel hasn't always been about ladies watches.
Ebel started out in 1911 as a mom-and-pop Swiss etablisseur--maybe even more of an atelier. Mom was Alice Levy, and Pop was Eugen Blum. (EBEL = Eugen Blum et Levy.) They took part in the development of a few movements, including a ladies caliber back in the 30's. But they made their name on their exquisite designs. And thus they were really popular as behind-the-scenes suppliers to more well-known brands. Most of the watches they made were under some pretty high-end names (ahem!--Vach--cough!-cough!--er--ahem!--on), but they also made some watches for American stencil brands, such as the "Paul Breguet" brand used by Kay Jewelers in the middle part of the last century.
They continued making watches for others, and a few with their own name, right through the 60's, now under the direction of Son No. 1, Charles Blum. I own an Ebel automatic from about 1962 that contains an AS1688 ebauche that is more finely finished than any other brand that used that ebauche, and those other brands included Zodiac, Doxa, Eberhard, Favre-Leuba, and Girard-Perregaux. It is a lovely 36mm steel dress watch. But watches in the late 60's started to get more hip, and Charles just wasn't into being a hipster.
So, he calls up No. 1 Grandson, Pierre-Alain Blum, who has been learning about marketing in the U.S. And Pierre-Alain, reluctantly it is told, returned to Switzerland to take over the family biz. Over the next few years, he moved the etablisseur into quartz movements while maintaining high jewelry standards and thus survived. In 1978, he designed the Ebel Sportwave, which became a true classic, so much so that it is still sold. By 1980, Ebel was a survivor that didn't need the help of Swatch, and Pierre-Alain had the idea that mechanical watches were going to make a comeback. So, he looked around for a movement to use (Ebel always was an etablisseur) and recalled that Zenith had created an automatic chronograph movement about ten years before. He contacted Zenith, which by this time was out from under the Zenith Radio Corp. yoke, but they reported their mechanical movements and tools had been destroyed. Of course, Charles Vermot at Zenith had squirreled them away, so out they came--the tooling and a large stock of finished movements and ebauches. And, so, Ebel came out with the Sport Classic Chronograph (aka Chronosport), in 1982, followed by the 1911 Chronograph in 1985, to celebrate Ebel's 75th year. Both famously included an El Primero movement. This was the watch adorning Sonny Crockett's wrist in Miami Vice.
By the end of the 80's, though, Rolex was also using the movement (and also others) and Ebel was unable to get the supply they needed. Zenith had supplied movements as ebauches and parts until 1986, but that year the El Primero 3019 became the 40.0, and the following year the 400. The first 1911's used 40.0-designated movements, so they were using the first of the new production. Rolex started using its custom version of the EP in 1988l, and that may well have consumed Zenith's production capacity. Also, Zenith was by this time producing their own watches again. So, in 1990 or so, Ebel started the development of its own chronograph design, working with Nouvelle Lemania. Thus was born the calibre 137, a variation on the Lemania 1350 that was exclusive to Ebel (though the base was also used by Breguet). Ebel came out with the Le Modulor watch in 1996 using the new movement. Lemania made about 50 of the critical parts, and Ebel made or bought the rest in open trade. They finished and assembled the movements in-house, the way it used to be done.
But in 1994, Ebel had over-invested in non-watch activities and was bought out by Bahrain-based Investcorp, which kept Blum on for a little while but then bottled them up. Investcorp also owned Lemania and Breguet, but did nothing to support good marketing or brand expansion. In 1999, they sold Lemania and Breguet to Swatch (Lemania is now Manufacture Breguet) and Ebel to LVMH. LVMH also owned Zenith and Tag-Heuer, which they positioned as "guy" brands, and forced Ebel to limit its marketing activities to ladies watches. (They never stopped making cal. 137 watches, they just couldn't market them.) It's ironic to me that Ebel had Zenith as a sister company during this period, given Ebel's role in reviving the El Primero. Given that Ebel was losing access to Lemania in 1999, they bought a five-year supply of the critical parts. When those ran out, they had them made by Dubois-Depraz. In 2004, LVMH sold Ebel to Movado, and Movado finally gave them the green light to market to men. They hired Thomas van der Kallen to take the helm, and he pulled the caliber 137 series out of the doldrums and created a new line around them, called "Back to Roots", or BTR.
Thus, the subject of this post. The 1911 BTR Chonograph includes the Ebel cal. 137, and first came out in 2007...
...Just in time for the economy to tank. Thus, the BTR move was never really successful, especially in the U.S. which was so important to the Movado Group and its shareholders. Just bad timing all the way around. They gave up on the BTR line in 2011 and sold the cal. 137 and its specialist staff to Ulysse Nardin in April of 2012. Now, their man's watch is the Ebel 100, which, near as I can tell, uses a Soprod movement. (EDIT: The Ebel 100 uses their cal. 120, which is an ETA 2892, as they used in prior three-hand watches. I was confused by seeing an Ebel Classic Hexagon, which predates the 100 by a couple of years, which use the Ebel cal. 301 and 303, which I thought were Soprod A10's, but they are actually 2892's with Technotime modules--the retrograde date and up-down indicator for the 301 and the dual time plus big date for the 303.)
Finally, here are some pictures, before Dennis loses patience.
The Ebel 1911 BTR Chronograph, ref. 9137L73
The case is brushed steel in the iconic Ebel Sport Classic hexagonal shape. It's 45mm from the left point to the base of the crown, and 43mm between the points. The dial opening is 32mm, so it does not wear as large as it seems. The case is 13.2mm thick--quite thin for a sporty-looking chronograph, especially by today's standards.
The bezel is rubber, as is the strap, and the strap is Ebel's proprietary design. (Ebel quoted me $275 for the leather strap for this watch, which is black alligator with red stitching, and $115 for a replacement for the rubber strap, and they say they will have both in perpetuity, even if they have to make them on demand. I'm assuming that does not include the deployant.) Yes, the pushers are rubber, as is the center of the crown. The pusher protectors are not screw-down, as they appear to be, though the crown is. But here's what that little detail means: The pushers can be activated while the watch is submerged, and are rated for use to the watch's 10-ATM rating. It's not a diver, but it can get wet.
The dial is a tri-compax-style chronograph with running seconds at 9 and a date opening at 4:30--this movement was designed to fit in watch cases designed for an El Primero. The minute totalizer does not jump from minute to minute--it is geared from the central seconds hand. The chronograph hands are red, and the running hands are faceted and polished rhodium-plating with light matte silver down the middle. That center stripe on the hands includes lume, with lume ovals on the index markers. The index markers are the same as the hands. The sub-dials are sunken with a cross-hatch guilloche that is quite fetching. The sub-dials overlap, but not in a way that obscures the chronograph markings. The markers are applied, as is the EBEL brand. The 12 O'Clock marker is the Ebel mirrored-E logo. The watch is sporty looking, and has a tachymeter along the inside edge of the bezel. The flat crystal is sapphire and as effectively treated with anti-reflective coating as any watch crystal I've ever seen (and better than more than a few of my camera lenses). Here is a closer view of the dial:
The movement is Ebel's cal. 137, which is based on a Lemania 1350 ebauche. It is lever-actuated, with bi-directional winding, and 12 hour chronograph. It has quick-set date, and the date setting is in the first crown position, unlike the Zenith. But like the Zenith, it does not hack seconds. Beat is 28,800 bph. The movement is fully integrated and thin.
Ebel cal. 137
The finish on the movement is excellent--clearly on a par with my Zenith. It is also COSC-certified and runs better than 5 seconds a day either way on the winder or on the wrist.
Here's a view showing the balance-cock side of the movement, the winder reversing gear, and the chronograph intermediate wheel. Note the anglage on the intermediate wheel bridge, and the clean finish work on the fourth wheel:
Ebel cal. 137
Finally, here is a wrist shot. This watch really sparkles, but it is still a masculine, sporty watch. It's usually the watch on my arm when I'm on my own time. The wrist is 8", and the supplied strap is long enough--barely. The strap includes a deployant that tucks the tail of the strap through the buckle and against the skin, so that the tail never hangs out. It's the best strap deployant design I've ever handled--I wish I could afford them for all my strapped watches.
Finally, a note for collectors and those who might want to find one of these as NOS. These are still frequently found in Movado Company Stores, where they routinely sell for under $2000 (I paid a little over $1500 for this one). That's quite a deal considering the MSRP of $5900 in this trim. If you buy there, you will often see "MR" engraved on the back. That means "Movado Retail", and it's intended to prevent people from buying at the outlet store, and then returning it at an AD, or something like that. But it comes with the full three-year factory warranty and this one also came with the COSC certificate. This engraving does not mean that the watch is a second, though watches at the Movado stores are often store demonstrators and may show a mark or two. For 70% off retail, I can live with that.
Here's a picture of the "MR" on this watch, between the strap screws. This is not the one I bought, which has the "MR" on the polished ring to the right of "STEEL", in lettering that is a bit less visible.
Rick "whose next essay promises to be shorter" Denney